Urbanist Richard Florida popularized the term “creative class,” describing the millions of workers in fields such as the arts, sciences and technology whose work largely involves coming up with new ideas and innovating on old ones.
The creative class has, for better or worse, primarily been associated with big American cities along the coasts: out of Richard Florida’s top 20 creative-class cities in 2015, only one — Dublin, Ohio — was located in a non-coastal state.
But new data recently released by the National Endowment for the Arts suggests that there’s an awful lot of creativity happening far inland from America’s coastal tech and arts hubs.
Among other things, the NEA worked with the Census to poll residents of all 50 states on their participation in the arts, particularly whether they performed or created works of art in 2014.
Those data reveal a somewhat surprising pattern: America’s Great Creative Divide isn’t between the coasts and the center, but rather between North and South. Take a look.
Nationwide, 45 percent of American adults said they personally performed or created artwork in 2014. “Art,” in this case, was defined by a wide variety of activities. Rather than recite all of them, I’ll just leave the definition, from the NEA’s report, here:
As you can see from the map, the study found a surprisingly wide range of arts participation between states. At one end of the spectrum, folks in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Florida seemed to have little interest in doing art — participation levels there hovered around 30 percent.
By contrast, people in states such as Colorado, Vermont, Montana and Oregon were roughly twice as likely to personally create or perform artwork.
You can see that the states are heavily sorted by geography, with the dividing line at parallel 36°30′ (by chance, the line that delineated the boundary between new slave and free states in the Missouri Compromise).
In no state to the south of that line do a majority of people say they personally create or perform art. Conversely, in only three states above that line — Kentucky, Delaware and West Virginia — do fewer than 40 percent of residents create or perform art.
What’s driving these differences? A separate analysis by the NEA has some answers. Education is a big part of it. The percent of state residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher is positively correlated with creating artwork: in other words, more education, more art.
This relationship is even stronger in some of the other categories the NEA looked at, such as attendance at art exhibits or performing arts events.
Conversely, poverty rates are a strong negative driver of arts participation. If you’re working three minimum wage jobs, you’re probably not going to have a lot of time to indulge in crochet or creative writing.
Of course, education and poverty are big drivers of each other, too. States with more money can spend more on better education, which leads to higher wages, which leads to more education, in an ongoing virtuous cycle. Unfortunately, the reverse holds true as well.
Rates of participation in the arts are a powerful and under-appreciated proxy for human well-being. “Self-actualization,” including creative activities, are all the way at the top of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. If you’re able to spend the time and resources necessary to, say, practice with the local theater group or join the local community band, it’s highly likely that you’ve got all the basics like food, shelter and safety taken care of.
The NEA numbers suggest that a lot of folks in Southern states are falling behind their Northern counterparts on some of those measures. This mirrors what researchers see in other domains too, such as child well-being.
Geography, again, is destiny. Statistically speaking, a kid born in a state such as Florida is likely to have a harder time reaching the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid than one born in, say, Minnesota.